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Our Ecuador Itinerary: How to Plan a Trip Backpacking in Ecuador

For us, backpacking in Ecuador was a series of highlights. In comparison to Colombia and Peru, it’s a small country but it’s jammed with amazing things to do.

Where else in the world can you hike to over 6,000m and also see marine iguanas and giant tortoises? Or cruise down the river on the biggest rainforest in the world? Or scale volcanoes and then go stand at the centre of the world?

Because it’s smaller, I like to think that it’s holiday-sized. It would be ideal for a two- or three-week holiday without having to rush through things.

Ecuador really is amazing. Let us tell you what we did there, what we’d do differently and give you some advice in case you’re inspired to plan a trip backpacking in Ecuador.

Scroll to the bottom of the post for lots of daily itineraries to help you plan your trip!

But for now, here’s what we did with our time in Ecuador.

How we spent one month backpacking in Ecuador

Okay, it was a little less than a month. We arrived in Ecuador on the 4th of December and left on the 28th. During this time, we didn’t waste a day. None of our usual relaxing, spending days doing nothing riff-raff. Here’s what we got up to.

Quito – 5 days

Stop number one in Ecuador was the country’s capital, Quito. After our hilariously long border crossing from Colombia (read about that here), we arrived in Quito late at night. Our five days in Quito were split up by side trips to the Amazon and Quilotoa, all the while using Quito as a base to go in and out of.

In the city itself, we did a free walking tour (our usual fave). We also climbed up the gazillion steps to the bell tower of Basílica del Voto Nacional church for a beautiful view of the towers opposite.

But my absolute favourite Quito activity was our trip to the equator. I went full-on nerd and obsessed over the coriolis effect experiments. After doing actual cool stuff at the real equator, we popped down to the fake equator and took some photos that looked cool. Here’s one of those…

Cueyabueno Amazon Forest – 4 days

No trip to South America should be complete without a tour of the Amazon. The world’s biggest rainforest takes up almost half of the whole continent and is equivalent in size to the United States.

We spent four days at Jamu Lodge, which was way more luxurious than most other places we’ve stayed. Being waited on by servers in bow ties is not something we’re used to – especially in the middle of a rainforest! The rainforest is just incredible, we saw monkeys, turtles, dolphins, caimans, snakes and spiders (we even had a baby tarantula as a roomie one night).

However, despite getting there just after Black Friday, they did not have the fantastic discounts that we saw online (did I really just make that terrible joke? Yes, yes I did).

Quilotoa Loop – 4 days

The Quilotoa Loop was one of our favourite things in Ecuador – if you’re planning to visit, do not miss this.

It’s a three- or four-day hike, passing between small villages in the Andes mountains. Each night, you stay in a hostel that’s set up perfectly for trekkers. There’s hot water, private rooms with ensuites, a three-course evening meal and a massive breakfast. On the last day, you arrive to the Quilotoa Lake, a massive crater lake formed after a volcano blew its top off. It was incredible and the perfect off-track activity before heading to the Galapagos.

Galapagos Islands – 12 days

Getting to visit the Galapagos Islands was a once in a lifetime experience.

Backpackers often skip it because the islands are expensive to get to, but we’re so glad we prioritized it. Our trip was totally DIY and we saw so much on the cheap. We were there over Christmas and spent Christmas Day scuba diving with hundreds of sharks – hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, white-tips, black-tips. Plus all the turtles and fish you can imagine.

Christmas Day dream, or what?

We’re going to write a bumper post on the Galapagos to show you how doable it is without spending thousands on a cruise – stay tuned!

Guayaquil – 2 days

After the Galapagos, we flew back to Guayaquil. It’s Ecuador’s biggest city but it’s a bit of a dump. Sorry, Guayaquil! To be honest, we didn’t give it much of a chance, we just stayed at a cheap hostel for a night to plan our onward travel to Peru.

We also have bad feelings about it because Mike’s mum sent us a Christmas package of chocolate and Barry’s tea which never arrived. Hope the hostel owners are enjoying the tea as much as I would have (They’re not. I know they’re not).

Some cool places that we didn’t go to

Looking back on our original travel itinerary, it’s safe to say that we’re travelling a lot slower than we expected. Our travel progress is as sloth-like as our blog progress. We like to call it a ‘relaxed pace’.

So, when we got to Ecuador, we made a deal with ourselves to hurry the hell up. This new ethos, combined with the fact that we wanted to spend so much time on the Galapagos, meant that we decided to miss out on a few places on the mainland.

Here are some places we kinda regret not going to:

  • Cotopaxi – Volcan Cotopaxi is an active volcano just outside Quito. It’s a tough but rewarding day hike, and at 5,897m is a monster. We’re after getting competitive with ourselves with heights now, so we’d love to have hiked this to get to almost 6,000m. Our current record is just over 5,000m at Rainbow Mountain in Peru.
  • Otovalo – Otovalo is most famous for its market. People make a stop off here after crossing from Colombia and before arriving in Quito. We gave it a skip because we can’t buy anything in markets or our bags will burst.
  • Banos – Banos is one place we’re sad about missing. It’s known for its thermal baths, but it’s an adrenaline junkie’s dream too, with rafting, canyoning and paragliding.
  • Cuenca – Cuenca is a colonial town in south Ecuador that’s nice for a few days to chill out and admire the pretty city. At this stage, we’ve been to lots of these towns so decided it wasn’t a must-do.
  • Pacific Coast – Montanita is best known as the beach party destination on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, but there are plenty of cool, small surf towns too.
  • Izhcayluma, Vilcabamba – We hadn’t heard about this place before arriving in Ecuador but saw flyers for it everywhere in Quito. It’s a fancy-ass ‘destination hostel’ (what’s a destination hostel? We’ve chatted about them in this post). With hikes, a pool, a great bar and restaurant and yoga classes, it sounds like the perfect place to spend longer than you’d expect to.

Onward travel: Ecuador to Peru

How to travel from Ecuador – Peru

The Ecuador to Peru border crossing gets a hard time from backpackers for poor safety standards and lots of crime, but our opinion is that once you choose a decent company and keep your wits about you, you’ll be fine.

There are three main options for making your way south:

Aguas Verdes border crossing: Guayaquil, Ecuador to Mancora, Peru

This is one of the most popular ways to cross the border. This is also the option we chose. CIVA and Cruz del Sur are both good companies – Buy your night bus tickets a day or two in advance at Guayaquil bus terminal. You can also book online with Redbus or Busbud (ppst – read our post with lots of handy travel apps like Busbud).

We went with CIVA and the tickets cost $40US each, but the bus was like business class on a flight – so comfortable. The bus leaves at 9 PM and says that it takes 15 hours, with a midnight stop to get your exit and entry stamps.

It doesn’t take 15 hours. It takes 7. This is a big difference.

You will arrive in Mancora very early (like, 4 AM early) so it’s a good idea to let your hostel know so that they’ll let you in. When you get off the bus, there are tuk-tuk drivers ready and waiting to take you to your hostel, even though it’s the middle of the night. They’ll take US dollars for the fare if you don’t have any Peruvian soles yet.

We stayed at Misfit hostel, which is right on the beach. They gave us blankets to sleep in the hammocks until morning which was ideal. They also gave us free breakfast that morning, even though we weren’t checked in the night before. Sound!

La Tina border crossing: Cuenca, Ecuador to Peru

If Cuenca is your last stop in Ecuador and you’re going to Chiclayo or Huanchaco in Peru, the La Tina border crossing makes the most sense. You’ll need to take a couple of separate buses, but it’s easy. First get a bus from Cuenca to Loja, the larger town nearby that has a big terminal and buses that go directly to Peru.

From there, get on a bus that goes from Loja to Piura in Peru, stopping at the border overnight to get your stamps. Piura’s not the nicest place to see in Peru so you’ll probably want to skedaddle out of there. Get a bus to Chiclayo and from there, you can get buses easily to Trujillo (to go to Huanchaco) or Lima.

La Balsa border crossing: Vilcabamba, Ecuador to Chachapoyas Peru

This is the place to cross if your last stop in Ecuador is Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba (that amazing lodge we wish we went to!). Since it’s not as popular to make the crossing here, there’s no direct shuttle bus. And it’s a hell of a journey. Practical Wanderlust have a detailed post on how they made the journey so bookmark that before you start your journey.

For now, here’s the general breakdown: take a colectivo to Zumba, then a ranchero to the border. After crossing the border, get a taxi to San Ignacio and use the city as your jumping off point to get a bus to Chachapoyas

Note: For crossing from Colombia into Ecuador, read our Colombia post here. If you’re going the opposite way and crossing from Ecuador to Colombia, this should work in reverse.

Tips for planning a backpacking trip in Ecuador

Don’t skip it!

We’re not sure why, but some people entirely skip Ecuador. Why, people, why? Don’t get a flight from Medellin to Lima, you’ll miss out on stunning places in both Ecuador and north Peru.

It’s not expensive, it’s not boring, there’s loads to do – give it a chance.

Either rule in or rule out the Galapagos

Don’t try to half-ass the Galapagos. The flights and park entrance fee are the heftiest costs that you’ll need to pay no matter how long you’re there for. It’s not worth forking out for these and then staying for only four or five days.

Once you’re there, things are affordable. Okay, it’s not as cheap as the mainland, but is still manageable – think $15US for a hostel, $5US for a meal. So if you’re going to do it, give it the time it deserves. If you don’t have enough time to spend at least a week there, maybe consider leaving it for another trip.

Ecuador is a good choice for your Amazon tour

There’s an ongoing debate across the gringo trail in South America – where is the cheapest place to get an Amazon tour? You can do them from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil – which is best?

The resounding answer is Bolivia, but I disagree with that. After looking into it, the price of a jungle tour in Bolivia is around $250US for a three-day tour, but then you either need to get a windy, uncomfortable 20-hour bus (ew) or else buy a flight that could cost anything from $150US upwards.

In Ecuador, tours at Cuyabeno range from $250US to $300US but that’s for four days, not three. The best part is that you can get an easy 6-hour night bus from Quito to Lago Agrio, where your tour will start. The public bus costs $10US or a private tourist shuttle is $20.

This makes it better value than the Bolivian option in Rurrenabaque.

Search for something a little off-path

Ecuador is a great country to go off the beaten track a little. Because it’s much smaller than other South American countries, you can easily take a short bus somewhere that people don’t usually go to. In other countries, backpackers generally stick to the gringo trail because going off-path could mean a day of travel in the wrong direction. So find a weird and quirky Airbnb or ask a local where’s a great off-track place to go in Ecuador and head on an adventure.

We didn’t really follow our own advice here, since we were trying to keep things speedy in Ecuador. But it’s good advice. Do as we say, not as we do and all that, yeah?

Budget for backpacking in Ecuador

To give you an idea of what to budget, here’s what a variety of things cost us in Ecuador at the end of 2018. The currency in Ecuador is US dollars and we’ve also converted it to Euro using the XE currency converter. And it probably goes without saying, but this budget is for mainland Ecuador – things are more expensive on the Galapagos Islands.

  • Hostel dorm bed: US$10 – 15 | €9 – 13
  • Cheap, local lunch: US$2.50 | €2.20
  • Mid-range restaurant dinner: US$10 | €9
  • Local beer in supermarket: US$1 | €0.89
  • Coffee in a cafe: US$2 | €1.79
  • Local bus Quito – Latacunga (2 hours): US$2.50 | €2.20
  • Uber in Quito: US$2 – 4 | €1.79 – €3.57
  • Amazon tour: US$250 – 300 | €223 – 268

How to get around in Ecuador

Buses in Ecuador

Since Ecuador is a bit smaller than its neighbours, it’s easier to bus around. You don’t need to book buses in advance, and the buses you will take are generally reliable. But they are bashed up, uncomfortable old buses, fine for getting you from A to B but nothing to write home about.

In Quito, there’s an excellent overground bus system and tickets are just 25 cents. Traffic is terrible though, so factor in extra time to get around.

Flying internally in Ecuador

How to book flights to the Galapagos Islands

The only reason to fly internally in Ecuador is to get to the Galapagos Islands. Use the multi-city flight search option on Skyscanner and Google flights to book an open jaw flight into one Galapagos island and out of another. We flew from Quito to Baltra on Santa Cruz and then our return flight was from San Cristobal island to Guayaquil.

Flights only go from Guayaquil and Quito, and they cost around the same, it doesn’t matter which airport you go from on the mainland. As a ballpark, we paid around US$350 each for return flights and booked them a month in advance.

We really need to write that bumper post on the Galapagos Islands, which should have tons more tips! Stay tuned for our very slow blog updates.

Taking taxis in Ecuador

Taxis in Uber are easy, safe and reasonable enough. But the buses are so good, and the urban bus is Quito is excellent too so we didn’t actually end up taking taxis too often.

Uber in Ecuador

Uber is available in bigger cities and is a good option, too. In Quito, we had a bit of a mishap with making it to the bus to go to Mitad del Mundo so we took an Uber and the forty minute journey cost US$15.

Suggested Ecuador Backpacking Itineraries

Backpacking in Ecuador: Two Week Itinerary – Ecuador’s Highlights

Ecuador was the country where we met the most luxury holiday-ers, versus backpackers on longer trips. This is the ideal itinerary if you want an amazing two-week holiday, fitting in the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon, the capital city and the equator.

You could also do the below as a two and a half or three week itinerary. We think a week is really the minimum you should spend on the Galapagos Islands. Spend ten or twelve days for a better experience.

Quito (2 days) – Cuyabeno Amazon Tour (4 days) – Galapagos Islands (7 days) – Quito (1 day)

Backpacking in Ecuador: Three Week Itinerary – Galapagos, Amazon and Hiking

This itinerary is quite similar to what we did, but we spent longer on the Galapagos. If you need to keep your trip to three weeks, just spend a week there.

Quito (2 days) – Cuyabeno Amazon Tour (4 days) – Quito (1 day) – Quilotoa Loop (5 days) – Quito (1 day) – Galapagos Islands (7 days) – Quito (1 day)

Backpacking in Ecuador: Three Week Itinerary – Budget Backpacker

This itinerary covers more on mainland Ecuador – we get that it’s not everyone’s priority to make it to the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon. The itinerary is a little shorter than three weeks, but if you’re feeling like some beach time, go to the Pacific coast in between Banos and Cuenca.

Quito (3 days) – Quilotoa Loop (5 days) – Banos (4 days) – Cuenca (4 days) – Vilcabamba (3 days)

Backpacking in Ecuador: Six Week Itinerary – The Ultimate Ecuador Trip

Here’s the ultimate Ecuador backpacking itinerary – everything we did in almost four weeks and everything we wish we’d done if we spent more time in Ecuador. Note that we’ve left the beach towns on the Pacific coast out of this itinerary because we think if you’re going to the Galapagos Islands, nothing will rival that.

Quito (4 days) – Cuyabeno Amazon Tour (4 days) – Quito (1 day) – Quilotoa Loop (5 days) – Banos (4 days) – Quito (1 day) – Galapagos Islands (12 days) – Guayaquil (2 days) – Cuenca (4 days) – Vilcabamba (4 days)

The Verdict

Backpacking in Ecuador blew us away. After all of the bad reviews, we sort of went there with our expectations low. But like we said, it’s a country of highlights and we saw some of the best places on the trip in this small little unassuming country on the west coast of South America.

We hope this post will inspire you to take a trip to Ecuador!

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